A gentle rapprochement is under way between China and the United Kingdom. After almost two years in a diplomatic freeze, David Cameron visited Beijing last month and made an effective play for more trade. For the UK, this is a moment to recalibrate its relationship and play a role in coaxing China towards becoming a responsible international stakeholder. One route to that end is through understanding and working with China’s ‘march westward’ strategy, which has at its heart the re-activation of the ancient Silk Road linking China to Europe.
Two Asian giants met in Beijing this week, with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh making a reciprocal visit to Beijing. The focus of the trip was economic cooperation and plans to get China-India trade to $100 billion by 2015, although it was the border disputes – and in particular the signing of a Border Defence Cooperation Agreement designed to defuse tensions – that captured the public attention.
What was missing from the agenda, however, was Afghanistan, a country in which Beijing and Delhi both have substantial mutual interests and where the two Asian giants could demonstrate their ability to responsibly manage the regional order.
For a relatively small drilling operation, China National Petroleum Corporation’s (CNPC) project in Afghanistan’s Sar-e-Pul province has a large footprint. Several layers of fences and containers serving as blast walls surround the extraction site, which includes dormitories, an office complex and various security structures. Throughout the day, trucks ferry in equipment and more containers. On the outside, the faces are all Afghan, but CNPC’s logo and bright red Chinese slogans are impossible to miss.
This remote outpost, not far from Afghanistan’s northern border with Turkmenistan, may symbolize the country’s future after the planned U.S. withdrawal of combat troops next year. As Washington prepares its exit following 13 years in the country, signs that Beijing has steadily stepped up its official and corporate presence across Afghanistan have begun to arise. In September, then Politburo member Zhou Yongkang met with President Hamid Karzai, while lower level diplomats have discussed greater engagement with the Afghan government. China even plans to re-open a branch of the Confucius Institute, an organization devoted to teaching Chinese culture and language, in Kabul. Continue reading →
As we near the date of withdrawal for U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan, the debate about the country’s largest neighbor has shifted. No longer are American analysts worried about Chinese investments free-riding on U.S. and NATO stability efforts. Now, the hope is that China’s massive state-owned enterprises (SOEs) will pour more funds into Afghanistan in the hope that foreign direct investment will shore up a centralized government and provide opportunities for all to make money instead of war. But, Chinese companies face many of the same uncertainties that U.S. forces and contractors have contended with for a decade.
Much has been written about the controversies and delays at the site of China’s largest investment in the country: the gargantuan copper mine at Mes Aynak. Both company officials and local observers indicate that the SOE leading the project, China Metallurgical Group Corporation, is biding its time, waiting to assess the post-withdrawal security situation.
What could be far more significant in the long run, however, are Chinese plans for oil and gas investment in the north of the country. These have the potential to link Afghanistan into China’s growing pipeline network in Central Asia, providing the infrastructure-led regional integrationthat U.S. officials have been touting for years. Nearby Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan have grown wealthy and centralized partly due to Chinese energy investment. Could the same be true for Afghanistan in the future? Continue reading →
The 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan is fast approaching. China has just over a year before Afghanistan fades from the West’s radar and Western attention toward the country shrinks substantially. However, it is not clear that Beijing has properly considered what it is going to do once NATO forces leave and pass the responsibility for Afghan stability and security to local forces.
And more crucially, it is not clear that China has thought about what it can do with the significant economic leverage it wields in the region. Afghanistan offers China the opportunity to show the world it is a responsible global leader that is not wholly reliant on others to assure its regional interests.
Traditionally, Chinese thinkers have considered Afghanistan the “graveyard of empires.” They chuckle at the ill-advised American-led NATO effort and point to British and Soviet experiences fighting wars in Afghanistan. Continue reading →
The way Central Asian states will turn — to Russia’s Eurasian Union or to China — is the test for influence in the region. Photo: (cc) Wikimedia/IvaNdimitry
If one turns enough of a blind eye, it is easy to be optimistic about Central Asia. Wily diplomats from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan are masterfully playing off the great powers. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan are turning into hubs in their own right – and nobody can tell plucky Uzbekistan what to do. This is nobody’s backyard, and attempts by neo-imperialists in Moscow, Washington and Beijing to play games in the region are only strengthening the hands of the Central Asian states themselves. This is a comforting picture – which is why Western policymakers love it – but it looks increasingly false as President Putin tightens the screws.
Why a Eurasian Union matters
Russia’s desire to strengthen its sphere of influence in Central Asia seems to be intensifying. The first sign came in October 2011 when Russia’s ‘national leader’ published his vision for a Eurasian Union in the Gazprom-Media owned daily Izvestia. Here Putin stated that the Customs Union with Belarus and Kazakhstan that would come into force on 1st January 2012 was just the beginning – and that it would expand ‘by involving Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. Then, we plan to go beyond that, and set ourselves the ambitious goal of a higher level of integration – a Eurasian Union.’
China is on its way to becoming the most consequential actor in Central Asia. This isn’t a critical or a negative statement, but rather a reflection of a reality on the ground.
The heavy investments in Central Asian infrastructure and natural resources, the push to develop the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, and China’s focus on developing the Shanghai Cooperation Organization into an economic player are slowly reorienting Central Asia toward China. None of this means that China is aiming to become a regional hegemon, but unless it is willing to write off considerable regional investment, it is going to find itself needing to engage in regional affairs in a more focused manner.
And these actions are likely to be interpreted regionally as hegemonic. A potentially very prosperous corner of the world, Central Asia, is in an early stage of development that could easily be pushed by instability in a wrong direction. China needs to prepare herself to step in and help resolve matters.
Facing a heavy domestic agenda and growing foreign policy tensions in the seas to the east, it is unlikely that Afghanistan is going to be a major priority for incoming Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Unfortunately, this does not mean the problems are going away. The contrasting fates of China’s large extractive projects in Afghanistan highlight a number of growing issues for the new administration in Beijing as the 2014 deadline for American withdrawal imposed by President Obama looms ever closer.
Up in the north, CNPC has started to extract oil from the ground in its project in the Amu Darya basin, while southeast of Kabul at Mes Aynak, the giant copper mine run by Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC) and Jiangxi Copper has been put on hold while the Chinese firms reassess their ambitious plans for a project described by President Karzai as ‘one of the most important economic projects in Afghan history’.
Zhou Yongkang with Afghan President Karzai in September
In a clear but still gradual shift over the past year, Chinese policymakers have changed their stance on Afghanistan from cultivated disinterest to growing engagement. As the potential security vacuum left by Western withdrawal in 2014 comes into sharper relief, Beijing has come to realize that it will have to play a role in encouraging a more stable and developed future for Afghanistan. As with China’s engagement in Central Asia as a whole, Chinese activity in Afghanistan is less a part of a grand strategy for the region and more the sum of number of disparate parts. Nevertheless, the sum of these parts could have major consequences for Afghanistan and the region’s trajectory as it signals a growing realization by Beijing of the role it will find itself playing in the future. Continue reading →
PRESIDENT OBAMA’S late 2011 announcement of his administration’s pivot to Asia marked a sea change in America’s geopolitical posture away from Europe and the Middle East to Asia and the Pacific Rim. Reflecting the growing strategic repercussions of China’s rise, the move presages a new era of great-power politics as the United States and China compete in Pacific waters. But is the United States looking in the right place?
A number of American strategists, Robert D. Kaplan among them, have written that a potential U.S.-Chinese cold war will be less onerous than the struggle with the Soviet Union because it will require only a naval element instead of permanent land forces stationed in allied countries to rein in a continental menace. This may be true with regard to the South China Sea, for example, or the Malacca Strait. But it misses the significance of the vast landmass of Central Asia, where China is consolidating its position into what appears to be an inadvertent empire. As General Liu Yazhou of China’s People’s Liberation Army once put it, Central Asia is “the thickest piece of cake given to the modern Chinese by the heavens.” Continue reading →
On Sept. 23, a top Chinese security official and Politburo member, Zhou Yongkang, made a surprise four-hour visit to Kabul during which time he reportedly met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai. This was the first high-level visit by a Chinese official to Afghanistan in half a century — a clear signal of a policy shift on Beijing’s part and probably the harbinger of further engagement to come.
Until now, China’s approach to its Eurasian neighbors, including Afghanistan, has been “soft,” primarily based on investment, infrastructure projects, promoting Chinese language and the multilateral body of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. Beijing has stayed away from difficult political issues — so much so that U.S. diplomats have actively courted China to become more involved in ensuring Afghanistan’s stability after the 2014 withdrawal of Western combat forces. The accusation against the Chinese government and Chinese state-owned enterprises has been that by investing in Afghan natural resources such as copper and oil, they are reaping the benefits of American efforts without expending any political capital. As the 2014 deadline approaches, however, this is quickly changing. Continue reading →
“It’s clearly a big thing,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a visiting scholar at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences who studies Chinese foreign policy. “China is increasingly firing all cylinders on its relationship with Afghanistan.”
Mr Pantucci said that while security concerns meant China would “still be quite hesitant” about future investments in Afghanistan, Mr Zhou’s visit would strengthen his country’s hand there. “It’s not just talk,” he said. “Zhou Yongkang has these connections to natural resources companies [and] China is certainly eyeing the US report that said there were $1 trillion of resources in Afghanistan. By being there first – and on the ground – it will make it easier for them.”
What do you do about attracting investment if you are a remote corner of China, best-known internationally for your ethnic tensions?
If you are Xinjiang, you invest heavily in a blockbuster economic exhibition. Urumqi is this week hosting its second annual China-Eurasia Expo, opened this year by premier Wen Jiabao, a clear upgrade from last year’s star host, vice premier Li Keqiang.
Leaders and/or ministers from seven countries flew in, giving credence to Wen’s claim that the Expo aimed ‘to build a new bridge of friendship and cooperation across the Eurasian continent…and make Xinjiang a gateway.’ But it’s along way from prime ministerial declarations to the investment that Xinjiang badly needs.
A Kyrgyz guide takes his horse for a drink in Lake Karakul, roughly halfway between Kashgar, in the Chinese autonomous region of Xinjiang, and the Pakistan border. By Sue Anne Tay
On paper, the Karakoram Highway stretches from Kashgar in China’s far western province of Xinjiang to Islamabad. In reality, it unfolds like a ribbon across China’s westernmost border before its tarmac comes to an abrupt halt at the Khunjerab Pass on Pakistan’s border – the highest spot on the world’s highest paved international highway. China scholars often point out that domestic concerns colour Beijing’s foreign relations, but the multifarious stops and diverse communities along the Karakoram reveal that China’s domestic concerns are anything but uniform.
Our journey starts in Ürümqi, a grubby metropolis of more than 2.3 million people that looks like many other second- or third-tier Chinese cities. Large boulevards cluttered with imposing buildings are filled with frenetic construction as the city rushes to erect more shopping malls to appease insatiable local consumers. As the capital of an autonomous region which is China’s largest political subdivision, and home to a substantial portion of China’s natural wealth, it is also a draw for poor fortune-seekers from neighbouring provinces. A taxi driver from the adjacent province ofGansu boasted how opportunities in Ürümqi are plentiful, with girlfriends to match—one for each day of the week.
A beat was missed on U.S. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon’s late July visit to Beijing. Described in the Chinese press as a “fire extinguisher visit,” it came as tensions continue to ratchet up in the South China Sea and the United States continues to butt heads with China over Iran, Syria and theoretical war plans. These disputes obscure the one area with scope for much greater cooperation between China and the United States: Afghanistan. Building on mutual goals in Afghanistan could have a positive effect on the overall relationship, showing that the distance between the two sides is not the Pacific-sized gulf that it is sometimes made out to be.
In discussions with Chinese officials about their objectives, the uniform answer is “a peaceful, stable and prosperous Afghanistan.” This is almost identical to answers given by their American counterparts. That said, there is a difference in tone that reflects the underlying concerns that craft it. Continue reading →